Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Language of Animation : Part I

This is gonna be a multi-post topic, but it should be fun.
Animation is a communicative tool. In fact I like to think of animation as a language all its own- a language that is universally understood across cultures and eras. Animation has the unique ability to cut through the cultural and societal clutter and deliver its message with a decisive clarity that other visual mediums can't even begin to touch. But like all languages, animation must be mastered in order for it to be used to the greatest effect. And then once the language is mastered we are left with the even larger challenge of having anything worth saying.

I tend to think of animation as an intertwined symbiosis of artistic expression and technical accuity. To follow the language metaphor- What to say and how to say it well? Somehow through the years the bulk of the educational emphasis in animation training has focused disproportionately on the technical, especially in recent years and in CG centric circles. The easiest thing to do is focus on the technical side. It holds out the promise of easily divisible measurable steps that make for good multiple choice questions on tests. Software is a very techie thing and it is easier to talk about buttons and functions, features and procedures than the nature of what's being said. And I'll be up front and admit that many of my own tutorials on this site focus on the technical side of animation (not the software techie stuff, but the technicals of motion). Topics are typically about how to accomplish a particular look, how to construct a desired result, how to appropriate the foundational discoveries of animation into your own work so that your animation doesn't just suck. Heh. We all want to get good at the craft of animation. We want our work to have weight, good balance, force, clean movement, easy-on-the-eye posing and motion, etc. I look at Richard Williams' book The Animator's Survival Kit as a primarily technical textbook on the craft of animation. A very, very useful and exhaustive textbook, but a technical textbook nonetheless. But in the end all of this focus is on "how to say something well". It's clinical, dry, scientific to an extent. Easily parsed into rules or steps or procedures, terribly succeptible to formula. It doesn't come anywhere close to addressing the other side of the animation coin- namely, What do we have to say in the first place?

That's the artistic side. Are we playing a song that moves people or are we playing meticulously mastered scales? I've never seen anyone moved to tears by scales, no matter how impressively performed, but I have seen plenty moved by music that touches their heart. What are we saying? So few people are having this conversation. The studios have almost all but abdicated any responsibility to do anything but make us laugh or to generate profit for the shareholders. Enter bathroom humor, lazy pop culture references and tired stand up comedy sketches. Game designers/writers struggle to understand this stuff and fall back on the threadbare old stand by's of shooting things and watching body parts fly. Institutionally there are very few organizations that are committed to saying something worth listening to.

But we're animators, we're not "the studio". What are we saying? Again, to follow our language track- there's a lot of energy being put into making pretty handwriting, solid sentence structure, proper spelling and meticulous punctuation within the animation industry. But is anything worthwhile being said? Is this a diatribe against blockbuster animated films? Heck no. I'm just saying that we could do better. I think we, the animators, need to step up and ask our supervisors, our story people, our directors to have a sense of understanding about what is being said. Instead of just trying to ride along and survive as we're pulled from the top we need to push up from the bottom. We are the performers, not the big name actors on the billboards. We dive into the character, the story, the motivations for the moment deeper than anybody else. We get inside these characters' skins, see the world through their eyes, feel the world through their heart. And even if the rest of the film is a cynical hopeless schlockfest we owe it to ourselves, to our audiences and yes, to our characters to find something worth saying in each scene. This doesn't need to be a massive cultural revolution- this can be a grass roots animator driven activity that we can begin every day, every scene, every project. What are our characters saying? Do our directors know? Do we ask them to know? Do we care?

We ought to.



Matt Kelly said...

Another Great article to inspire both us wannabes and veterans alike. The last paragraph describes why i want to be a part of this artform.

StevenHWicker said...

Wow what a great blog, i really enjoyed reading this, good luck in your work. Music Video Production